DOST Harnesses STI in Battling Covid-19; More R&D Coming

Twitter: @edd1819, Instagram: @bluestar0910, Facebook: SDN — Science, Digital & Current Affairs

By EDD K. USMAN

(SDN) — THE Department of Science and Technology (DOST) has proved itself in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

In the time of the global pandemic the DOST under Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña is a vital cog in the government’s side.

It has accomplished various feats to aid front-liners and the citizens in general.

More plans are afoot going forward, said de la Peña.

  • R&D & other S&T activities in support of the fight vs COVID-19;
  • Technology interventions for small & medium enterprises to help them  adjust to the new  environment;
  • Transfer of technology to assist Filipinos in need of new livelihood and new investments;
  • R&D and S&T activities to help ensure food security, including the operation of smart food value chain systems;
  • Use of AI and ICT in all sectors for good competitiveness, good governance and ease of doing business.

SDN reached out to him and DOST Undersecretary Dr. Rowena Cristina L. Guevara (head of Research and Development) to give voice and space to the science department.

Question and Answer: (Warning: This is a long article but full of information.)

1. The pandemic has disrupted lives in so many ways, as well as putting on the spot government agencies which were required by the national government to share expertise and resources, not least DOST and its attached agencies. Needless to say, the pandemic brings to the fore the role of science, technology, and innovation (STI) for an unprecedented role in fighting the contagion. How did the pandemic affect DOST in its view of its role in making life better for all, knowing that the President has enlisted it in the battle? –

A. — Since the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the Philippines was announced last January 30, 2020, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) responded to the Philippine Government’s call to work in containing the virus and mitigate its socio-economic impact. As part of the newly-formed Interagency Task Force (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Diseases, DOST, knew the significant role of science in policy formulation and implementation of strategies in dealing with the pandemic.

COVID-19 is a novel virus. At first, there was no information on the disease process — its infection pattern, mutation, detection, and cure. Understanding the virus became the priority of the scientific community. For DOST, infectious disease research is a regularly funded field. Even before COVID-19, we have invested on the research of forecasting tools in the spread of malaria and measles. We also have technologies recognized worldwide in detection kits for dengue. DOST has funded disaster-response and management technologies. We also have funding programs for industry sectors, most specially start-ups
and private companies in need of assistance.  We are also equipped with mass production facilities and laboratories, with affiliation to private entities in key areas nationwide.  Most importantly, DOST holds a network of science professionals –Balik  Scientists, R&D Leaders, Project Leaders, researchers, engineers, chemists, laboratory technicians and academicians ready for consultation in all regions of the country.

The real challenge came in the speed of our response to the pandemic. Even with stringent protocols in the funding process, we were able to immediately fund projects crucial to detection of COVID-19 and production of technologies to protect our frontliners.

2. What changes does DOST had to adopt to redirect its focus on health-related STI activities to help the national effort?

A. — By adopting the economy measures in the government (DBM NBC 580) due to the emergency health situation to fund the operations and response measures related to the COVID-19 emergency situation, the DOST has prioritized most of its 2020 budget to fund and treat all applications for health-related research preferentially as well as fast track the approval for COVID-19 relevant research.

For instance, the DOST-Philippine Council for Health Research (PCHRD) Council which has the primary role of coordinating health research activities in the Philippines,  implemented the project titled, “Addressing and Responding to COVID-19 through Health Research (ARCHER)” to have a concrete and dedicated mechanism of funding health-related COVID-19 studies with the aim of providing research-based solutions that will contribute to pandemic response.

Thus, determination of priority health R&D areas for funding and evaluation of the submitted proposals as well as monitoring of the approved projects will be achieved. It has an allocated total budget of PHP90M from DOST Grant-in-Aid.

Also, some of the reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) equipment that were purchased from DOST-funded research projects of the Universities were lent to the hospitals to strengthen the hospital’s capability in testing patients for COVID-19.

3. With the attention focused on DOST presently, do you have enough resources and manpower to match what is expected of it in the battle vs the pandemic?

A. — Given the  magnitude of the pandemic, battling it is a concerted effort, there is a range of government agencies that have a
hand in providing manpower and resources. On the case of DOST, based on the UNESCO benchmark,  a developing country should invest 1% of its GDP on Gross Domestic Product Expenditure on R&D (GERD). Over the years, the Philippines still underinvest in R&D and its investment has remained below 1%.

However, the DOST has remained resolute inaccelerating research and development and innovation despite prevailing budgetary limitations. The DOST puts its resources in theright investments for public good. In fact, there are many DOST-funded technologies that have been deployed and used by the public to battle the pandemic i.e GenAmplify Covid-19 Test Kit, FASSSTER, DWARMTech, REWear among others.

4. How would you rate the participation of the DOST in the battle?

A. — On May 30, 2020, in one of the articles of the Manila Times, the DOST was commended to be the best government responder in this pandemic. The Department was lauded in mobilizing its resources to address the pandemic. This is the link to the article as we do not want to belabor the answer.

https://www.manilatimes.net/2020/05/30/opinion/columnists/dost-best-government-responder-in-this-pandemic-dswd-the-worst/728135/

5. How different is DOST’s role pre-pandemic and during pandemic in bettering the lives of every Juan and Juana?

A. — DOST plays a salient part in the heart of the Philippine Government. Since 30 January 1937, by virtue of an Executive Order No. 128, we were tasked to support local scientific and technological efforts and encourage greater participation not only of researchers in the public sphere but also our private sector to participate in research and development. This is done to maximize innovation for economic and social benefits for the Filipinos. We’re doing that ever since.

Although R&D and its outputs may take time to be completed and utilized, DOST made sure that what we build and produce are for common good and developed with scientific bases. From the production of carageenan plant growth promoter for farmers, iron-fortified rice to resolve iron-deficiencies in some areas of the country, development of ready-to-eat food packs for emergency cases to sustainable mass transport like Hybrid Electric Train, locally manufactured total knee replacement system designed for Asian population, flood hazard maps and Biotek-M (Dengue) kit. All these we have been doing pre-pandemic
to help better the lives of Pinoys.

During this pandemic, we strengthen our initiatives to encourage and provide funds to scientists to conduct research focused on providing immediate, timely and relevant scientific solutions in this time of health crisis – be it development of masks, face shields, antimicrobial soaps,  hand mists or local diagnostic kit and Filipino-made web-based disease surveillance platform (FASSTERR), among others that are now being utilized by our health professionals and national and local government bodies.

We are also more focused on providing assistance to the private sector to help them navigate and identify innovative solutions for their affected business products and processes. Our R&D funds are now more directed to these initiatives.

6. Please mention the technologies and innovations the DOST has created for the pandemic alone?

Among the technologies and research innovations on COVID-19 supported by DOST include:

PCHRD:

1. GenAmplifyTM CoronaVirus Disease-2019 (COVID-19) rRT-PCR Detection Kit:

The first locally developed kit for COVID-19 in the Philippines

2. Feasibility Analysis of Syndromic Surveillance Using Spatio-Temporal Epidemiological Modeler (FASSSTER) for Early Detection of Diseases:An existing project of PCHRD that has been expanded for use in COVID-19 surveillance and response. It was developed as a mathematical and STEM-based model to predict the spread of COVID-19 in the Philippines, LGU dashboard and self-report system for monitoring of constituents with symptoms.

3. GinHAWA, a Philippine-made ICU ventilator: Development of an affordable but safe and reliable mechanical ventilator for respiratory failure support of COVID-19 patients.

4.  Studies on the  beneficial effects of Virgin Coconut Oil (Lauric Acid and its derivatives), Tawa-tawa (Euphorbia hirta L.) extract (as an antiviral drug) and Lagundi (Vitex negundo) tablets: Used as an adjunctive treatment for mild to moderate COVID-19 patients.

5. RxBox Telehealth Devices: Repurposement of the RxBox device for deployment in COVID-19 referral centers, quarantine facilities, and other healthcare facilities to complement existing capacities for in-patient monitoring.

6. SIBOL: SaniPod as Self-ContainedDisinfecting Cubicle: A self-containing low-level disinfection cubicle unit with automatic
sensor mechanism for opening and closing, automatic sensor misting mechanism, ultraviolet light and a foot sanitation unit.

PCIEERD:

RAPIDPASS: DOST, DEVCONNECT Philippines, Inc. (DEVCON), DICT, and the Joint Task Force COVID Shield (JTF) are collaborating  in the implementation of RapidPass, the technology that provides easier access in Metro Manila’s quarantine checkpoints for frontliners in the fight against COVID-19. RapidPass is a QR based system that hastens the movement of Authorized Persons Outside of Residence (APOR) and their vehicles through Quarantine Control Points (QCPs).

Specimen Collection Booths: DOST has deployed 132 specimen collection booths nationwide to help detect more persons infected with coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19). The design was created by DOST-Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development Startup Grant Awardee Future Aviation and
Maritime Enterprise, Inc.

LISA Robot – for Covid 19 Care: DOST assisted UST in producing more prototypes for its robot that can help health workers reduce contact with COVID-19 patients. The LISA Robot or  Logistic Indoor Service Assistant Telepresence Robot is a remote-controlled wheeled device that allows health professionals to talk to their patients, via Wi-Fi using a computer, tablet or smartphone. This is of great help to patients and health workers because there will be reduced contact and risk of getting infected.

VENTILATOR SUITABLE FOR COVID-19 TREATMENT: With the spread of COVID-19 in the Philippines, DOST is assisting local designs of ventilators and respirators to augment the health care system grapple with COVID-19 patients needing these medical devices. DOST will support activities related to design and development, prototyping, fabrication and assembly of the prototype, simulation, pre-accreditation testing and calibration in collaboration with the Electronics Product Development Center (EPDC) of the DOST-Metals Industry Research and Development Center (DOST-MIRDC) and testing by an accredited inspection body of the government.

Tracing for Allocation of Medical Supplies (TrAMS+): In partnership with UP Diliman,TrAMS+ is an online geographic system developed for tracking information regarding health facilities’ medical resources. This system relies on crowdsourced and volunteered information that may be used by government agencies, donors, and other interested parties as a tool for effective response in distribution of the much-needed medical resources.

Project RAMDAM or Resource Allocation Management, Distribution, and Monitoring: The system developed by Geographic Innovations for Development Solutions, Inc. (GrIDS) in partnership with DOST, is a COVID-19 initiative composed of a Mobile App and a Web Portal that could serve as a platform for residents and LGUs to share accurate information regarding relief packs and cash assistance distribution.

The system aims to provide efficient data management and monitoring for the LGUs and feedback and request mechanism for the residents. Aside from the relief distribution, the RAMDAM System would be useful in monitoring and getting feedbacks from the frontliners as well as patients in the Ligtas COVID Centers.

The DOST- Forest Products Research and Development Institute (DOST-FPRDI) designed and produced bamboo-framed face shields (BFFs) for distribution to frontline services in Laguna. The frames were made from kuayan tinik, a bamboo widely grown and available locally. The BFFs gained popularity in social media for it’s fashionable look.

It was also featured in several tv, news, radio programs. Recently, FPRDI and LGU of Cabuyao City signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on themass production of BFFs. This initiative is expected to create jobsand provide livelihood to the citizens of Cabuyao.

DOST-PCAARRD launched the GALING (Good Agri-Aqua Livelihood Initiatives towards National Goals)-PCAARRD Kontra COVID-19 Program to help the agriculture, aquatic and natural resources (AANR) sector in this time of pandemic.

Through the GALING Program, PCAARRD shares itstechnology and information through IEC and various platforms (press
releases, social media, tv and radio programs). Further, food products coming from on-going supported programs/projects of the council are distributed to affected communities and front liners throughout the country.

Lastly, the council provides S&T based livelihood options by promoting urban gardening, community/backyard vegetable gardening, village scale chicken meat and eggs production and backyard tilapia farming. This is in hope to teach people in producing healthy andnutritious food themselves even beyond the ECQ.

Also worth noting, DOST has led the Sub-TWG on Vaccine Collaboration which presents opportunities for vaccine trials and production with international clinical trials partners. The sub-TWG on Vaccine Trials has already conducted a consultation meeting with 11 local pharmaceutical companies to discuss possible public-private partnerships on local clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccines in the country.

The DOST is currently negotiating outsourcing possible vaccine candidates for clinical trials in the country through its
international bilateral partners. The Department has also organized a vaccine expert panel from the academe, hospitals, industry, and research institutes to help the sub-TWG in the technical assessment and vetting of possible vaccine prospects offered by bilateral partners for Philippine clinical trials.

NRCP

As a DOST collegial body, NRCP is committed to promote problem-oriented researches in the field of sciences and humanities
that aim to understand and provide solutions to pressing national issues like COVID. For the past 6 months, the NRCP has been conducting research, doing survey and meta-analysis including the (1)  people’s feelings and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic across its timeline, how they feel, respond, process and react to the various information and their sources, (2) a comprehensive desk review of government orders, policies, issuances and/or legal instrumentalities pertaining to the prevention and control of COVID-19 in the Philippines, and (3) an interactive gender online dashboard with sex-disaggregated data
related to COVID-19  among others. Gender, according to the last study, is one of the neglected social dimensions of COVID-19.

These researches interest the IATF and requested NRCP to continue some of the studies to aid them in policymaking during this pandemic.

7. Going forward in the “new normal,” how would DOST function and fulfill its mandate, would there be any major adjustments in terms of its priority programs and projects?

DOST’s mandate is to provide central direction, leadership and coordination of scientific and technological efforts and ensure that the results therefrom are geared and utilized in areas of maximum economic and social benefits for the people. Amidst the Pandemic, the DOST has paved the way for a scientific and innovative national response against COVID-19.

On a national level, the DOST actively participates in the Interagency Task Force (IATF) and its technical sub-working groups to provide direction and a harmonized scientific response. It closely coordinates with the DOH, DICT, DILG and other government units to develop solutions that can aid in our aim of flattening the curve.

Within the DOST, all its attached agencies — the sectoral councils, the research and development institutes (RDI), the collegial bodies and its regional offices, contribute to the efforts against the Pandemic. By tapping the expertise of all DOST agencies, the Department provides a holistic approach to this Crisis.

The main battlefront against the COVID-19 is being handled by the PCHRD with its main programs on Test Kit Production and Support on Vaccine Development. PCIEERD and PCAARRD coves the DOST’s support to alleviating the negative effects of the pandemic in our local industries and agriculture sectors.

The 7 RDIs of the DOST: ASTI, FNRI, FPRDI, ITDI, MIRDC, PNRI and PTRI leverages on their niche capabilities to develop technologies that mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and improve our responses in the ground-level.

Funding programs of the DOST like the Science for Change Program have responded to the need to empower our researchers to contribute to the Department’s effort. As an example, the DOST launched the CRADLE Challenge 2020 with the theme “Equipping Industries for the New Normal, #Collaborations against COVID-19” to engage researchers to partner with local companies to develop scientific, technological, and innovative solutions that will shape the new normal for businesses.

With this approach, we can harness the expertise of our researchers and combine it with the business sense of our private partners to maximize the efficiency and utilization of the new technologies that will be developed.

Ultimately, our strategy in combating this pandemic is a holistic and unified approach that empowers every level of the community — from individual researchers, to private companies, to research institutions, and to national agencies, to contribute and to take part in the challenge of shaping the new normal through Science, Technology and Innovation.

8. How has the scientific community in the country under the DOST responded
to the call, do we have enough scientists, engineers, and researchers?

●      The situation heightened the importance of Science, Technology and Innovation in the country. Many of our Filipino Scientists, Engineers, and researchers both from the public and private sectors and even abroad responded to the call. The situation opens up new opportunities for the past research to be repurpose and use for immediate response to the pandemic.

This only shows that government R&D investment in the past becomes very relevant in solving the present needs, coming up with a science-based decision support system to guide our leaders and most importantly, bringing new technologies
which can save people’s lives.

●       As the Philippines battles the COVID-19 pandemic, the DOST shifted its R&D programs and projects towards addressing the pressing current need. We have initiated new programs and deployed new technologies developed by Filipino researchers that provide frontliners with better ways to deal with the pandemic and help save more lives in the country.

●      Balik Scientist Program: Heeding the call to help the country fight COVID-19, Filipino scientists formerly based abroad have joined other frontliners in the fight against COVID-19 and are now working in different hospitals and institutions in the country. Carrying the “bayanihan” spirit in their hearts, these Filipino experts are now offering their expertise under the Balik Scientist Program.

There are a total of 18 of them from different fields. To name a few, they are the following:

○      Dr. Edsel Maurice T. Salvaña is a member of the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) that advises the Department of Health and the Inter-Agency Task Force (IAFT).

○      Dr. Joseph Adrian L. Buensalido is currently an Infectious Diseases and Internal Medicine Consultant at the Asian Hospital and Medical Center, Makati Medical Center, Manila Doctors Hospital, and had conducted his research studies at the UP-PGH.

○      Dr. Jonel P. Saludes, a professor of Chemistry and Associate Vice President for Research at the University of San Agustin, is now assisting in assessing the capacities of the Western Visayas Medical Center (WVMC)’s facilities and technicians for compliance and accreditation by the Department of Health.

○      Dr. Raymond Francis R. Sarmiento leads the Data Warehouse Team of FASSSTER, a project of the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD) to fight COVID-19.

○      Dr. Reynaldo L. Garcia, an expert in biomedical research, consulting and biotechnology enterprise, led the national databasing of laboratories with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to assist DOH in testing.

●      DOST Scholars volunteer: Despite the worry and uncertainty amid the spread of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) , scholars — both ongoing and scholar-graduates – of the Department of Science and Technology – Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI) were among the first to organize themselves to do volunteer work in their localities.

As of June 5, there are 1,081 ongoing and former science scholars who volunteered in relief operations; data encoding and validation; 3D printing of frames for face shields and production of other personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontliners; and production of alcohol.

Some even helped in their community safety assistance program by monitoring persons entering and leaving their barangay. The number of scholar-volunteers kept rising from an initial 500 in April to more than a thousand as of date. There are still scholar-volunteers whose contributions were undocumented. As the community quarantine was relaxed in several parts of the country, DOST-SEI is positive that the initiatives from its scholars will remain.

●      CRADLE Challenge: The DOST through the Science for Change Program’s Collaborative Research and Development to Leverage Philippine Economy (CRADLE) component are inviting Higher Educational Institutions (HEI)/ Research and Development Institutions (RDI) to partner with Filipino private companies to formulate solutions that can aid our industries in overcoming the challenge of the new normal.

With various efforts in addressing the current COVID-19 crisis, the CRADLE Challenge will focus on how to equip our local companies with capabilities to become competitive during and after the crisis. Within 1.5 months, the call for proposals which ended on 14 July 2020 received a total of 123 submissions. This shows that many of our scientists, engineers, researchers and the private sector are answering to the present need.

●      As the fight to put a stop to the spread of this deadly virus continues and overcoming the challenge of the new normal, it is
expected that more and more medical practitioners, scientists, and researchers will render service in different capacities and share their expertise to protect the lives of the Filipinos.

9. Please feel free to say anything relevant to the current situation, also a message to students on the importance of STEM.

The COVID-19 pandemic brings forth the very importance of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in this fight. Through STI, we understand the virus, get accurate and timely data, analyze it, provide S&T based recommendations aiding our political leaders in the aim of minimizing the infections and saving lives of our kababayans.

The role of STI will not stop on the COVID 19 itself only. It will take a major role in the rebooting of our economy and adapting to the new normal. We expect rapid development of new technologies and innovations (particularly in digitization and automation) to help our industries rebuild their respective businesses. In all of this, DOST will always be part of this process.

With this, we can truly see that STI is not only confined in research papers. It has real-world applications. It can answer a real-world problem.

To the students, we at DOST encourage you to take the STEM track and be future researchers, scientists and engineers. With your knowledge, potential, and proper training, you can be part of the Filipino scientific community who will shape and boost the future STI ecosystem in the country, undertake relevant research and development, and help improve the lives of Filipino people. (DOST

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